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No Schlumpf when it comes to Bugattis

2014-06-18 09:10


BOLD AND BEAUTIFUL: A Bugatti Royale – only seven of these magnificent cars were produced. Under the bonnet is a 12.8-litre straight-eight engine. Image: DAVE FALL

For a number of years after the Second World War the wealthy Schlumpf brothers lived a life of complete subterfuge. Today, for their troubles, they are credited with having masterminded one of the world's largest car museums.

Fritz and Hans Schlumpf had it made in the early 1950's, I reckon. The Swiss brothers had just inherited a textile mill in Mulhouse in the Alsace region of France. Autocratic they may have been but for many years they really looked after their mill staff – a fact never in dispute.

Brother Fritz had owned a Bugatti Type 35B for some years and around that time pre-war classic car prices were in free-fall - but still an asset that was slowly but surely appreciating in value.


Said Fritz to brother Hans:  “Why don’t we specialise in the Bugatti marque. Nobody else seems to have hit on the idea here or in America?”  The indulgent idea was agreed and a plan hatched – but alas the car-stockpiling scheme would soon become a crazy obsession.

Fritz was the obvious petrolhead of the two, having been a useful amateur race-driver in his younger days, but he did control the company chequebook.

In the summer of 1960 10 more Bugattis were added to the sizeable collection already housed in a rundown warehouse behind one of their mills at Mulhouse. By Christmas 1960 they had 40 classic cars and lots of Bugatti memorabilia stashed away from prying eyes.

The word was out however in classic circles in England, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, and of course, the US:  “The Schlumpf brothers are buying up every Bugatti they can lay their hands on for cash!” Meanwhile, the mill's workers went about their daily business working long hours making lots of cash for the Schlumpfs.


It wasn’t just Bugattis, either. Other bargain-priced cars were bought for their collection, among them a trio of Lotus Formula 1 cars once owned by Jo Siffert; another well-known American collector offered to sell his entire collection of 30 Bugattis to them.

Fritz got out the cheque book.

By 1967 they owned 105 Bugattis, along with quite a few rare Mercedes-Benz, Maserati, Panhard-Levassor, Darracq, Renault, Peugeot, Porsche, Ferrari cars and even a Rolls-Royce or three. But the Schlumpf brothers remained tight-lipped about their purchases, showing them rarely and then only to a few guests who were sworn to secrecy.

The reason given was that the world textile industry was slipping away from Europe to Asia – and business wasn’t that great any more in France. The by-now union-backed workers were striking for better conditions and shorter hours all too frequently, it seemed.

By 1977 their mill business was on a slippery slope. The factory buildings were stoned by strikers, claiming the brothers were no longer looking after their welfare and long-term interests. There were ugly rumours the brothers were more interested in buying up old cars.


The strike went on for two years with the Schlumpf brothers finally going into liquidation. The workers seized control of the collection of cars, burning a couple along the way, to show they meant business!

What became of the brothers you might ask? Well, safe and sound in Switzerland as it turned out – but without their precious cars. Fritz acted as spokesman and filed a law suit over the lost business in Mulhouse. He never received a cent before dying in 1992. Hans died soon afterwards.

However, in 1999, a French court found in Fritz’s favour and the balance of a 40 million franc indemnity was paid out to his widow in Switzerland.

Today the unbelievable collection of priceless cars appears safe for ever in the hands of an association that includes the City of Mulhouse, the regional board of the Alsace region, the organisers of the Paris Motor Show and the French National Heritage Society.


Around 400 cars can now be seen at the refurbished museum – among them examples of Mercedes-Benz W125, pre-war W154 GP race and a brace of Type 41 Royale cars – such as the one seen in the accompanying photograph taken by the writer at a recent Festival of Speed event at Goodwood, England.

There, amazingly, six of the seven Royales ever made were on view to petrolheads who had travelled from all over the world for this unique ‘Speed’ event.

Was it any wonder that the brothers fell for the Bugatti marque all those years ago?

No, I didn’t think so, either.
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